Thursday, March 13, 2008

'This One Thing I Do.' John Brown of Broughton Place. - XXX

The presenting of a 'libel', or formal charge against a man suspected of holding unsound views may appear to some in this modern age to be a form of persecution. Actually it can be a very effective way to clear the air; thus William Robertson Smith actually demanded a libel when he was accused of holding unsound views. It means that all rumours can be dealt with by the voice of the church Speaking with authority.

Dr. Marshall's 1845 libel against Dr. Brown Was set out in Syllogistic form, with five 'heads' of doctrine contrary to Scripture and the Confession forming the major proposition. The minor proposition was that Dr. Brown taught these things, and supplied evidence from his defence with Dr. Balmer in 1843. The Synod accepted the libel and set a date of 29th July for its verdict.
Never before had a Secession Professor been so libeled, and interest was high. The excitement was only heightened by the fact that the Synod's meetings were held in Brown's own church of Broughton Place, the largest Secession church in Edinburgh.
Brown lodged his own answers to the charges brought against him, chiefly consisting of extracts from writings already in print by him, in order to avoid the charge that he had changed his mind and retreated from his position.
The Synod took a slightly unusual method of procedure. Instead of first deciding the relevancy of the charges, in other words whether or not they were really errors, and only then proceeding to the proof, it was decided to consider relevancy and proof together on each charge. The reason for this was that the libel with irregularly drawn. Had it been considered in the normal way, it would just have been thrown out on technical grounds, and the controversy would have been no closer to an end, a result that would have been highly unsatisfactory to all concerned, and most importantly to the church as a body.

Each count of the libel was read by the clerk, supported by Dr. Marshall and answered by Dr. Brown. The proceedings covered four days of impassioned argument.
The first count charged Dr. Brown with denying the immutability of the Divine Decrees. In evidence it was stated that he believed the non-elect were savable in the sense that only their unbelief hindered their salvation. Whilst about a quarter of the Synod felt that the words were capable of being used in an unsound manner, Brown was unanimously acquitted of using them in such a manner.
The second count, dealing as it did with original sin, had no real relevance to the atonement controversy. The third, however, brought up the question of the extent of the atonement. After a very long and difficult debate the Synod concluded that Dr. Brown repudiated the Arminian teaching of universal atonement, which no Calvinist could hold, but that he did not do so in a satisfactory manner if he wanted to be considered to hold to the Westminster Confession.
The fourth charge was very strange. It seemed that Dr. Marshall was saying that to hold that Christ's death needed Divine appintment, independent of its own intrinsic worth, to make it a true atonement, was an error. The Synod dismissed it in astonishment and passed over to the last count, the charge that Dr. Brown held that Christ had died as a substitute for all men. Brown denied this, but again his language was thought to be insufficiently guarded.
The vote, when taken, cleared Brown of all errors. The libel was dismissed, and peace again came upon the denomination. With it came for Dr. Brown the opportunity to enrich the Church universal with the fruits of his pen.

Of which more, God willing, next time.



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